Post: There’s one thing that has always confused me about the Republican side. On the Democratic side, it’s not just our data, it’s also about the manpower and the personnel we have on the ground to collect the data, knock on the doors, and get info to put back in the voter file. I would see reports where Romney had seven staffers in Iowa. How do you build an organization that will collect enough data to enhance these files without having the staff you need on the ground?
Stutts: I will say this about the Obama campaign: from the first campaign to the end of the second campaign, they had about a five-year data collection and implementation process. In Romney’s defense, he had about nine months after he won the nomination. It’s hard to compete against a four-and- a-half year head start. I was out on the ground in South Dakota in 2002; we were doing test cases in Virginia in 2001. We were well ahead of John Kerry and where they were way back in the day.
Jesmer: I also think the jury is still out on whether this is just totally about President Obama or whether it is really transferable to other Democrats. Obama ran a great campaign in 2008, but it didn’t help them in 2010. So it’s an open question as to whether or not that’s transferable.
Stutts: Democrats have been able to turn out voters in presidential elections with Obama, but maybe not on issue campaigns.
Post: One thing that I think is really important on the legislative side is that we now have a generation of organizers that have been trained on data collection, and a generation of organizers that have been trained on GOTV and best practices. So the question is whether they can take what they learned on the Obama campaign and can that trickle down to the state legislative level? We tried to train all the organizers uniformly. Can those people take what they learned and then create that wheel themselves? Stewart: And I think having the same sort of volunteer excitement, at least in the last two presidential cycles, was potentially unique to President Obama. The optimization, the analytics, and the data that was applied are universal.
Things like making sure your script encompasses best practices so that you see a two or three percentage point bump in donations based on simply tweaking where you put the ask in an email; making sure you match behavior with voting type so if someone voted early in 2008 you’re hitting them with an early vote message. All of those are universal and will be applicable to future candidates. As far as issue advocacy, it’s a much more challenging ask. I call it a quiver of arrows, and it is part of the challenge that we have at OFA. You don’t know exactly what is going to make the member change his or her mind or come out in support of your position. So you try to do earned media and some direct contact; you try as many creative tactics as possible to help amplify your message and create pressure. But it’s not a straight line like getting to 51 percent in a state.
C&E: As it gets tougher to reach voters by some more traditional means like TV and phones, are you finding similar challenges when it comes to GOTV?
Stutts: You try to throw 100 arrows at the bullseye—that may be digital, mail, TV, or phones. Ten years ago you could drop a mail piece, hope they saw a TV ad, and make some phone calls, but there are 10 other arrows we now have. Early voting has changed everything, as has the ability to do all of this very quickly.
Stewart: Our general premise was the best person, both message and messenger, matters. At least from a grassroots perspective we were trying to facilitate friends talking to friends, neighbors talking to neighbors. But basically having that messenger deliver whatever the ask is. And that could either happen online or offline. Since contact rates continue to go down, one of the things we tried to do is have that person use their Facebook network and have that person be the messenger. By using some of the data analytics on the back end, we could make sure we were targeting the right people with the right message based on who their friends were or where they lived. But the messenger was someone who had a preexisting relationship with that voter.
Post: We’ve gotten smarter about messaging and giving people something to vote for. But I think our voter contact has gotten more efficient in a lot of ways because of the enhancements to voter data. If we walk a block in Minneapolis, we know which people have moved because we’ve knocked that door. If any other campaign in the state has knocked that door, we have that data, too. We at least are trying to make the most of the volunteer’s time when they go out and knock on that door.
Stewart: One example of optimization would be in Virginia. The phone rates there are just brutal. When I was the state director [for Obama] in 2008, we started off at a 13 percent contact rate. It was even lower in 2012. To optimize the volunteer’s time we actually ran a contactability model. We wanted to know who would be the most likely to answer the phone if we called. And then within your existing universe of voters we could rank order who would be the most likely to answer. That way the volunteer could have the best experience, and be the most efficient with their time. I think the next iteration of that is that you’ll have the folks making research decisions asking a lot more questions like that. If you can’t hold someone at the door or on the phone, does that mean you retarget for mail? Do you spend more money trying to engage that person on a digital platform? It’s going to be interesting, because it’s harder and harder to get people on the phone.